October 9, 2018
Switching Medigap Plans is Tricky
When Thomas Uttormark turned 65 in 2010, he researched his Medigap options on the Medicare.gov website and chose a plan with a premium of around $100 a month.
As his premium inched up over the next two years, he decided to apply to another insurance company to see if he could reduce the cost of his policy. Since the federal government dictates the coverage amounts under each of the 10 Medigap plans, he reasoned, his existing insurer’s Plan N provided exactly the same coverage as any other insurer’s Plan N – and the new plan might be cheaper.
“I thought it was no big deal to switch,” said the 73-year-old Uttormark.
However, switching did prove to be a big deal. His application was denied. He suspects it was due to his pre-existing conditions, which included a routine gallbladder surgery before he retired, and his cholesterol, blood pressure and acid reflux conditions, which are fully controlled with medications. The insurer didn’t give him a reason for the denial.
Uttormark ran headlong into a maze of federal regulations that determine whether, when, and how a retiree can transfer from one insurer’s Medigap plan to another insurer’s Medigap. One in four people enrolled in traditional Medicare have Medigap supplemental insurance – about 10 million retirees – and are affected by these restrictive regulations.
They are “particularly confusing,” said Casey Schwarz, the senior counsel for education and federal policy for the Medicare Rights Center in New York and Washington.
She said that people who’ve just signed up for Medicare Parts A and B routinely call her organization because they are having trouble sorting out their options and what they will be permitted to do in the future if they choose either Medigap, which is supplemental coverage for traditional Medicare, or Medicare Advantage private insurance after initially signing up for Medicare Parts A and B.
A handful of states have looser regulations than the federal rules – California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, and Oregon – and allow retirees to move more freely among various Medigap plans, though the states also have their own restrictions.
Schwarz explained that the insurance company denied coverage to Uttormark because he did not qualify for what the federal government calls “guaranteed issue.”
Under guaranteed issue, there is only one time when every Medicare beneficiaries is assured access to a Medigap policy: when they first sign up for Medicare Part B. At this time, insurers can neither deny coverage based on a pre-existing condition nor charge a higher premium if an applicant has a specific health condition.
Another guaranteed issue period applies to limited numbers of retirees. It gives retirees the right to buy a Medigap policy – even people with pre-existing conditions – if they lose their previous coverage through no fault of their own. Perhaps their current Medigap or Medicare Advantage insurer went bankrupt or left the state, or their employer ended its Medicare supplement for retirees. When this occurs, however, the retiree must select a new policy within 63 days of losing their old coverage.
Uttormark didn’t qualify for guaranteed issue because he was choosing to drop his Medigap policy for a less expensive one. Insurers can rightly “refuse to sell him a policy, can charge him more for pre-existing conditions, or refuse to cover his pre-existing conditions,” Schwarz said.
The federal rules also provide an opportunity to switch plans if retirees selected Medicare Advantage as their first form of insurance when they enrolled in Medicare. In this case, they are permitted to move into any Medigap policy sold in their area but they, too, have a restriction: they must do so within the first year of their initial Medicare enrollment.
“Medicare beneficiaries who miss these windows of opportunity may unwittingly forgo the chance to purchase a Medigap policy later in life,” the Kaiser Family Foundation said in a recent policy brief detailing the federal and state regulations.
The Medicare.gov website describes the circumstances in which beneficiaries qualify for federal guaranteed issue. …Learn More
October 4, 2018
‘Retire Rich!’ Don’t Believe the Sales Pitch
If an alien were to drop in to study earthlings’ retirement, it would have to conclude that saving is either nearly hopeless or super easy.
Many Americans approach retirement planning with dread – hardly surprising, given that only about half of working-age adults are on track to have sufficient savings to retire in the lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to while working.
But there purports to be an easier way – and it’s on YouTube. Googling “retirement” turns up all kinds of outlandish promises of nirvana for regular folks. Examples of YouTube titles are: “Retire Young. Retire Rich.” “Guaranteed Ways to Retire Rich.” “How to Retire in 10 Years – Much Easier Than You Think.” You get the picture.
Don’t be fooled. In a 401(k) world, what workers need is determination, planning, and persistence to ensure they’ll be prepared for old age. YouTube offers only magic bullets.
Many of these exploitative videos are targeted to 20-somethings new to the financial world, who may be more vulnerable and persuadable. But perhaps they are also able to attract hundreds or even thousands of viewers because they offer easy solutions to what may be our most anxiety-producing financial challenge: Will I ever be able to afford to retire?
Yes, one video claims. Retire at age 40! The self-appointed retirement expert in this video, who does not identify himself, hides behind cartoon illustrations on a white board to display his mathematical comparisons of workers who started saving at different ages. The point of this exercise is that people who start early will wind up with a better-funded retirement, due to compounding investment returns, than those who start in their 40s or 50s. So far so good.
But things quickly go downhill when he claims that it’s possible for a 23-year-old to retire in 17 years. You “don’t have to work another day in your life, and you’re still able to do the things you want to do,” he says, allowing this tantalizing prospect to sink in with the audience. But his retire-at-40 scheme has a catch – and it’s a big one. To achieve this goal, a 23-year-old would have to save half of his or her income. Young adults are trying to achieve independence – not move back in with their parents to follow his financial prescription. …Learn More
October 2, 2018
Subprime Crisis Lingers for Minorities
As Americans were riveted to the spectacle of teetering Wall Street behemoths in 2008, another ruinous tragedy was beginning to unfold: a national foreclosure crisis.
Black and Hispanic homebuyers were hit hardest by the foreclosures that resulted from unbridled sales of predatory subprime mortgages, which exceeded $500 billion annually at the market’s peak.
In the decade since the financial crisis, the stock market has rebounded smartly, but the damage to minority communities remains. At the height of the foreclosure crisis, entire neighborhoods were littered with bank foreclosure sales and realtors’ signs advertising sales of the properties.
About 30 percent of black and Hispanic borrowers’ homes in total have gone into foreclosure in the years since the housing market crash, compared with 11 percent of whites’ homes.
“For [minority] families, financially destructive foreclosure events delayed and potentially derailed the dream of homeownership,” the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis concluded in a report on the continuing impact of the financial crisis.
But the damage goes deeper than that. Because home equity is often the most valuable asset that people own, the foreclosure crisis “severely damaged the balance sheets of minority families,” the Fed said. …Learn More
September 11, 2018
Personality Influences Path to Retirement
Only about a third of the older people who are working full-time will go straight into retirement. Most take zigzag paths.
These paths include gradually reducing their hours, occasional consulting, or finding a new job or an Uber stint that is only part-time. Other people “unretire,” meaning that they retire temporarily from a full-time job only to decide to return to work for a while.
A new study finds that the paths older workers choose are influenced by their personality and by how well they’re able to hold the line against the natural cognitive decline that accompanies aging.
Researchers at RAND in the United States and a think tank in The Netherlands uncovered interesting connections between retirement and cognitive acuity and, separately, and a variety of personality traits. To do this, they followed older Americans’ work and retirement decisions over 14 years through a survey, which also administered a personality and a cognition test.
Here’s what they found:
- Cognitive ability. The people in the study who had higher levels of what’s known as fluid cognitive function – the ability to recall things, learn fast, and think on one’s feet – are much more likely to follow the paths of either working full-time or part-time past age 70.
The probable reason is simply that more job options are available to people with higher cognitive ability – whether fluidity or sheer intelligence – so they have an easier time remaining in the labor force even though they’re getting older. …
August 30, 2018
Why US Workers Have Lost Leverage
A 1970 contract negotiation between GE and its unionized workforce is unimaginable today.
A strike then slowed production for months at 135 factories around the country. With inflation running at 6 percent annually, the company offered pay raises of 3 percent to 5 percent a year for three years. The union rejected the offer, and a federal mediator was brought in. GE eventually agreed to a minimum 25 percent pay raise over 40 months.
“They said we couldn’t, but we damn sure did it,” one staffer said about his union’s victory.
Former Wall Street Journal editor Rick Wartzman tells this story in his book about the rise and fall of American workers through the labor relations that have played out at corporate stalwarts like GE, General Motors, and Walmart.
Critics use examples like GE to argue that unions had it too good – and they have a point. But that’s old news. What’s relevant today is that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and blue-collar and middle-class Americans seem barely able to keep their heads above water even in a long-running economic boom.
New York University economist Edward Wolff in a January report estimated that workers lost much ground in the 2008 recession and never recovered. The typical family’s net worth, adjusted for inflation, is no higher than it was in 1983 and far below the pre-recession peak. Granted, workers’ wages have gone up recently, though barely faster than inflation, but they had been flat for 15 years. Workers are also funding more of their retirement and health insurance.
Wartzman’s theme in “The End of Loyalty: the Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America” is that the system no longer works for regular people, because companies have weakened or broken the social contract they once had with their workers.
The loss of employer loyalty is one way to look at the state of labor today. The loss of workers’ leverage against global corporations is another. …Learn More
August 23, 2018
Maybe You Can Slow Cognitive Decline
After decades of study devoted to describing the negative effects of dementia, a new generation of researchers is pursuing a more encouraging line of inquiry: finding ways that seniors can slow the inevitable decline.
One vein of this research, still in its infancy, considers whether seniors could reduce the risk of dementia if they engage in volunteer work. Several studies focus on volunteering, because most of the population with the greatest risk of dementia – people over age 65 – is no longer working.
There’s no suggestion that volunteering can prevent dementia. However, one new study, by Swedish and European researchers, found that Swedes between 65 and 69 who volunteer had a “significant decrease in cognitive complaints,” compared with the non-volunteers. The seniors answered a survey questionnaire at the beginning and end of the 5-year study that gauged whether they had experienced any changes in each of four complaints: “problems concentrating,” “difficulty making decisions,” “difficulty remembering,” and “difficulty thinking clearly.”
The study didn’t go so far as to claim that volunteering actually caused the improvements either. But it highlighted how volunteering might reduce the symptoms, possibly because it keeps older people more physically and mentally fit.
Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States
Indeed, the cognitive benefits of exercise have been understood for so long that they’ve become a perennial topic in the mainstream media. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 85, has become the poster child for elderly exercisers, with a personal trainer overseeing her push-ups and turns on an elliptical machine in a CNN Films documentary, “RBG.”
The research confirms that she’s doing what she needs to do to stay sharp for her beloved job: aerobic exercise in particular protects seniors’ brain matter from deterioration; weight training and stretching exercises do not.
A research team’s 2014 review of 73 prior studies on volunteer work found multiple benefits: “volunteering in later life is associated with significant psychosocial, physical, cognitive, and functional benefits for healthy older adults.” The paper, which appeared in the Psychological Bulletin of the American Psychological Association, defined psychosocial well-being as having greater life satisfaction, higher executive function, being happier and having a robust social network. …Learn More
August 14, 2018
Americans With Small 401ks Worry
This blog has spilled plenty of ink over the problem of so many workers having inadequate retirement savings.
One theory is that they don’t understand the urgency. But a new survey makes clear that they not only are fully aware of the problem but are very worried about it.
The vast majority of the 1,000-plus baby boomers and Generation-Xers who conceded to being behind on their saving wish they could save more – Allianz, which conducted the survey, calls them “chasers.”
These chasers recognize that if they don’t make adjustments, it’ll be too late to repair their finances. Two out of three fear the worst: they’ll run out of money at some point in old age and will be forced to eke out a living on their Social Security checks alone.
Their fears are warranted. The typical boomer household approaching retirement who has a 401(k) has saved just $135,000 in its 401(k) and any IRAs combined. At retirement, this amount equates to only about $600 in monthly income
Half of the workers put the blame on a single culprit: “too many other expenses right now.”
This sentiment dovetails with mounting evidence that many workers are overwhelmed by the increasing costs of health insurance, college, and housing, which are far outpacing their pay raises. Low-paid workers are especially hard hit, according to 2017 research. If they save at all, they set aside only 3 percent of their paychecks – half of what top-paid people are able to save. …Learn More